Sunday, January 27, 2013

Twitchy Stories: Levy’s Black Vodka

Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka collects ten short stories that are almost painfully pithy: in my last post, I described Levy’s stories as “twitchily enjoyable, instant gratification with mini-epiphanies that completely absorbed me.” Twitchy stories are especially difficult to write about because they’re so here-and-now: it’s hard to retain and then convey the feeling of instant gratification that comes from those mini-epiphanies without retelling everything. By contrast, I think sneaky, slow-burn short stories, like those in Quim Monzó’s A Thousand Morons, which I wrote about last time, are easier to describe because they leave behind more traces of atmosphere and mood.

All that said, I thoroughly enjoyed most of the stories in Black Vodka… and have nothing but respect for Levy’s ability to write compact observations of contemporary culture, pain, alienation, and the strange details that accompany them. I also love Levy’s directness, like this, from “Black Vodka”: “After a while she orders a slice of cheesecake and asks me if I was born a hunchback.” This isn’t a line I’d marked while reading, it’s one of many lines I noticed in a random flip through the book. I don’t idolize lovely sentences because, alas, lovely sentences rarely pile up to form lovely stories or lovely novels… but Levy does pretty well with hers.

Here are a few notes on four stories I particularly enjoyed:

“Shining a Light” is set in Prague, where one Alice has arrived without her baggage. She meets two Serbian women at an outdoor movie screening then meets a man, Alex, through them, setting up opportunities for Levy to parallel losses of physical baggage and homeland baggage. Alice does fine without wardrobe changes, “Later, when she walks over the cobblestones towards her hotel in Malá Strana she realises that arriving in a country with nothing but the clothes she is wearing has made her more reckless but more introspective, too.” The story was commissioned for an installation by the Wapping Project; four writers were asked to write texts to accompany a photographic narrative.

The main character in “Stardust Nation” drinks cognac out of an eggcup in the early morning: the story felt almost comfortingly familiar to me, with wonderful elements of madness and transference that I won’t describe, lest I give the whole story away. I think the familiarity came from some of the odd Russian stories I’ve read… And I wrote “kind of sweet” on the Contents page next to the title “Simon Tegala’s Heart in 12 Parts,” a twelve-installment story of a man who, among other things, “[decides] to throw the I Ching to discover if Naomi loved him.” He also buys an old Cadillac to please his beloved. But…

And, finally, there is “Vienna,” which begins with this, “‘Before I forget,’ Magret’s voice is low and vague, ‘I want to test my new microwave.’” Sure, why not? She tests with langoustines, a rather risky test, I’d say, but the microwave works. So do the languages, cultures, millennia, and sadness Levy piles into “Vienna,” a story that only takes a bit more time to read than Magret’s langoustines took to cook.

After writing this post, I Googled, curious to find what others might have written about Black Vodka, which comes out in late February. I found this Literateur piece by Alex Christofi, who sums up the collection with this, “Here, as in her previous plays, stories and novels, her writing exhibits a rhetorical severity which, at its best, has a mythic, lullaby quality, experimental and at the same time simple and beautiful.” Black Vodka is my first Levy book so I can’t compare, but Christofi’s description certainly fits Black Vodka. And “rhetorical severity” has a nice ring, doesn’t it?

Disclosure: I received a review copy of Black Vodka from And Other Stories; I met Stefan Tobler, publisher at And Other Stories in 2011.

Up next: Moving on to longer stories with Sebastian Faulks’s A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts, a book I’d call a collection of five long stories. Then Therese Bohman’s Drowned, a not-very-long novel. And Zachary Karabashliev’s 18% Gray.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sneaky Stories: Monzó’s Morons

As someone who reads fiction of all lengths but much (¡much!) prefers novels, it felt like a slightly strange twist of blogging fate to first receive two story collections… and then read them in rapid succession: Quim Monzó’s A Thousand Morons, in Peter Bush’s translation of the Catalan collection known as Mil Cretins, and Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka. What struck me most—beyond the reminder that I truly do love short stories and should read more of them—is that the two writers’ stories had such opposite effects on me. Monzó’s stories about the absurd and alienated are sneakily enjoyable, slow-burn stories I didn’t necessarily realize I’d enjoyed until I finished them. Levy’s stories are twitchily enjoyable, instant gratification with mini-epiphanies that completely absorbed me. Today I’ll look at a few of Monzó’s stories; Levy’s are up next time.

Here are a few of the morons I particularly enjoyed:

My favorite story may well be the first, “Mr. Beneset,” about a son who visits his father in an old people’s home. The son finds his father at a mirror: “He is straightening some lingerie, black and cream lingerie, the sort the French call culottes and the English French knickers.” Mr. Beneset tells his son to knock before entering, but, oh well, it seems Dad Beneset didn’t hear the knock because he wasn’t wearing his hearing aid. It’s not the touch of voyeurism or lingerie that appeals to me, it’s the quiet, sad absurdity of Mr. Beneset’s life and advanced age, housed in a place where people die (“leave”) around him, where life is lived by the meal schedule but there’s freedom and time to fuss over lipstick and nail polish. But not, it seems, to shave one’s legs for wearing tights.

“Love Is Eternal,” the second story, begins with the chance meeting of a former boyfriend and girlfriend. They get back together… and each of them does something moronic, bringing the story to an O. Henry-ish twist ending that implies a special sort of hell for the narrator boyfriend. I think personal hells might be a key to being a Monzó moron: these people live in their own private torture zones. I enjoyed “Praise” a lot, too: writer Daniel Broto is asked in an interview to name a book he recently enjoyed: he mentions one and then has to live with the consequences, partly because he raises the expectations of the man who wrote the book he cited. People! Do us all a favor! Never tell someone “We should meet for coffee!” unless you mean it.

Being a long-form fiction kind of reader, I can’t say the microstories interested me as much as the longer ones, but some were fun. “Beyond the Sore,” with a man who’s asked to comment on a book he hasn’t read, focuses on the issue of how to respond without being a total moron… what a pseudo-problem! Honesty is so obviously the path of least moronism, I don’t get why people can’t get over this one and tell the truth. And then there’s “The Fork,” which addresses an age-old question: If a fork falls on the floor and nobody notices, did the fork fall?

A fork falls in one of Levy’s stories, too, so I’ll pick up there next time…

Disclaimers: I received a review copy of A Thousand Morons from Open Letter, a publisher with which I always enjoy discussing literature in translation, including a specific piece I’m translating. Open Letter also gave me not one but two tie-in A Thousand Morons t-shirts… hmm, a subtle hint? The shirts have the same design as the book cover so have a “special” look when worn on a body. Thanks a lot, Mr. Beneset!